Kitchen Confidence

Maintaining A Sourdough Starter

By • January 8, 2013 • 62 Comments

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. Today, we're discussing the best ways to maintain a sourdough starter.

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Sourdough starters have a reputation for being high-maintenance. There are many different feeding methods out there, and the multitude of options and schedules can overwhelm. However, once you've mastered your routine, a starter is a completely manageable addition to your kitchen. And we've highlighted a method that only requires a once-a-week feeding for maintenance purposes. Of course, there are other successful strategies, but we've found this one to be manageable as well as successful.

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What is it?
A sourdough starter has three components: flour, water, and wild yeast. Sourdough bread differs from other types of bread in that it contains no cultivated yeast or chemical leaveners. Rather, it gets its rise from wild yeast and Lactobacillus, a type of bacteria. The sour taste that it produces comes from lactic acid, a byproduct of the fermentation that occurs when lactobacillus metabolizes the sugars found in flour.

Like any living organism, a starter needs food in order to grow and survive. So, although it's quite resilient, it must be fed regularly in order to produce a quality product when used in baking. 

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Feeding your starter
The formula is simple: add equal parts water and all-purpose flour to four ounces of starter. Be sure to stir well before and after mixing -- you want to equally distribute all ingredients, gases, and liquids.

This creates a 100% hydration ratio, which means that you are using the same amount of flour and water. It is important not to feed your starter too much: it will be overwhelmed and unable to digest everything. Feeding it too little, on the other hand, can lead to an inactive starter.

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Countertop Maintenance
To maintain your starter at room temperature, feed it once daily using the following formula: combine four ounces of starter, four ounces of flour, and four ounces of water. 

The day before you plan to bake, feed it twice without discarding any of the starter. That is, add 4 ounces each of flour and water; you want to beef it up in both size and activity level before putting it into your dough. These two feedings should be at least six hours apart, and the second feeding should come 6-8 hours before you begin mixing your dough. This does require some planning ahead! 

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Refrigerator Maintenance
Here's the low-maintenance method: to maintain your starter in the fridge, simply feed it once a week: combine four ounces of starter with eight ounces each of flour and water. Then it's back into the fridge for 7 days. This is also a great method that will avoid over-fermentation if your kitchen is very hot (hello, New York City summers).

Three days before you bake, take the starter out of the fridge. Feed it once, and then let it sit at room temperature for 24 hours. The next day, feed it twice -- roughly 12 hours apart. On the third day, feed the starter about 6 hours before you mix your dough -- this will allow proper fermentation to maximize the rise and flavor of your loaves. Got that? Good. Now get baking!

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You probably didn't kill it.
You might neglect your starter. You might forget about it for weeks. But it's probably salvageable! If a sour- or astringent-smelling liquid has pooled at the top (that's the alcohol from fermentation), simply mix it back in -- don't dump it out! -- and then begin feeding it twice daily. Once you start seeing those fermentation bubbles again, you're clear to resume your regular schedule.

If your starter turns pink or red (or moldy), it has gone bad. Just throw it out and start anew.

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Storage Options
While a ceramic crock is the most traditional container for a starter, plastic will do just fine. Glass works, too; just be sure that your container has a wide mouth to make feeding and measuring easier.

Tell us: do you keep a sourdough starter? What are your best tips?

Jump to Comments (62)

Tags: kitchen comfidence, sourdough, bread, wild yeast, baking, sourdough starter, how-to & diy

Comments (62)

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Geiranger

14 days ago meet your baker

Has anyone had trouble using tap water to feed a starter? I had a friend of mine who had trouble maintaining his and thought it may be due to the treated tap water in our area? Thoughts?

Fsm

14 days ago trampledbygeese

Absolutely. Especially city water. To make the water system safe, some cities add antibacterial, antimicrobial, and other anti-blablabla stuff to the water. What's more, this often changes during the year, so water that worked in the winter, may kill the start in the summer. Every city is different, and given how large these water systems are, it's generally a good thing that they do this - even if it does play marry heck on one's fermented foods. One solution is to boil the water then leave out on the counter until cool. This gets rid of many of the chemicals that bother sourdough. A second choice would be to try distilled water, however, Sourdough doesn't always thrive on this as it seems to want minerals or something from normal water. Third choice would be to beg some water from a friend with a (tested) well. Some natural, agricultural, or industrial additives can seep into well water and also damage the starter, best to get the water tested every so often to find out if this is a problem in that area. Let us know what your friend tries and how it goes. Failing that, maybe it's the flour - sometimes things are added to flour to extend the shelf life or to substitute nutrition. Using whole grain (not just whole wheat) flour in the starter could make all the difference.

Headshot2009

9 months ago abbyarnold

Jo, the proportions don't matter. The starter just needs some flour and water as nutrition. Try it and you will see! Whatever proportions you keep, and you don't need to be precise, will be absorbed when you make your bread, which is basically a giant starter with some salt. Trust me, starters are very hearty! Think about those explorers who hauled a bit of starter with them when they traveled by horse from Ohio to Oregon, or up to Alaska. My starter is a mix of my friend Melissa's family starter, some of the King Arthur, and whatever spores were picked up when the giant Pioneer Bakery was still operating two blocks from my house. I have at times ignored it for close to a year with no consequences--it is a real Rip Van Winkle. For me, the most difficult part of sourdough baking is getting a good crust. I am now experimenting with bricks on my gas BBQ to get a 500 degree oven with a humid environment.

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9 months ago Jo

My starter came from King Arthur Flour Co and recommends 4 oz warm water and 1 c unbleached all purpose flour. Why the difference between this and 4 oz or 1c each in comments below? I am an amateur but would really like to make different artisan breads.

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11 months ago mayK

I have rye-, whole wheat- and a white sourdoug always in the refrigirator and " feed" them once a week , usually when I'm baking a sourdough bread. It's almost a weekly ritual..
But really one of the best is making yeast-water of two green apples and water and made some really nice levain bread. It's an almost magical who easy it can be done... :)

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about 1 year ago Rachael

There is something about sourdough bread that I just LOVE. Have you ever heard about Sourdough International's sourdough starter? I have a friend who bakes and she uses their starters but I kind of wanted some more reviews..

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over 1 year ago Darryle Sanchez

My starter has been in my family for generations. I primarily use it for flapjacks (pancakes), but I have used it to make bread, with excellent results. I maintain two starters from the original that I got from my mom, a plain white unbleached flour version, and a whole wheat. I usually only use it during the summer months, when I've finished with my post-winter-comfort-food binge diet, when it's warm enough to refresh nicely in the basement. I have let it go for months in the refrigerator without refreshing it, and several times I was sure I killed it...but it always seems to come back. I actually HAVE killed it before, and had to start over with a batch from my mom...but that was years ago. If anyone would like a recipe for flapjacks, just drop me a note at [email protected]

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over 1 year ago Cookhacker

I mentioned this earlier in this thread, but from the comments, it seems that some missed it. If you would like some excellent starter, you can just go to Carl Griffith's 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Starter page, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the address given, and they'll send you their starter for FREE! It's great...I've had a batch going over 10 years with awesome results using it.

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over 1 year ago abbyarnold

Sucrespice, sourdough starter starts with wild yeast from organic grapes or other source in the atmosphere. That's why it is usually obtained from a friend! Once you have your own starter you keep it alive but dormant, feeding occasionally if you are not using it regularly.

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over 1 year ago sucrespice

What sort of yeast is used in the starter?

Fsm

over 1 year ago trampledbygeese

A few recipes call for a pinch of commercial yeast to get a starter moving (for example, Nigella Lawson' sourdough recipe in How to be a Domestic Goddess) but the majority do not add any commercial yeast.

In the air all around you is natural yeast. It's most common on fresh fruits and veg. You can see it as the dusty bloom on apples and grapes. This wild yeast is attracted to the flour/water mix and will make a home there. This is what becomes your starter.

As to the specific species of yeast, there are literally thousands. It depends on where you are in the world, what time of year you begin your starter, if you live in a rural or urban environment, temperature, and stuff like that.

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over 1 year ago Kym9932

My starter is over 25 years old and I created it the long way (trusting in wild yeast to create it)
I think when it was younger it needed regular feeding, but certainly not now
Maybe it's because I keep my frig really cold 40 degrees but I don't feed mine until it looks like I have to
Sometimes it's every other week (summer) sometimes it's once or so a month in the winter
It does take a bit longer to refresh

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over 1 year ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Q to Editors: What recipe did you use for the loaf of bread pictured in the photo accompanying the weekly digest for this post? Many thanks. ;o)

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Marian is Food52's Associate Editor.

We cheated and used a store-bought loaf for the sake of time! Would love to hear your favorite sourdough recipe.

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over 1 year ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

I use this one http://williamalexander... , but substitute 25 g each of whole wheat and whole rye (pumpernickel) flours for 50 g of all-purpose. I use this both for baguettes and boules; when making a boule, I often increase the substitution of other flours, and bake it in my Dutch oven. ;o)

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over 1 year ago left bank

I currently have two starters in my refrigerator which I feed once a week. One of them is a Liquid Levain from Daniel Leader's LOCAL BREADS. This is the most lively of the two--bubbly on the surface and elastic. I let it sit in a homemade proofing box consisting of a hot pad for 8 to 12 hours and either bake with it or store it in the frig for another week. The other is a German rye sourdough from the same book. This one requires 12 to 24 hours of standing prior to baking but only one hour if one simply wants to refresh it for another week in the refrigerator. This starter doesn't exhibit much activity on the surface but it is like a mousse when stirred.

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over 1 year ago linded

MarionBull - your post has nothing to do with the subject at hand. WHat were you thinking? It's all about you?

Stringio

over 1 year ago scotchgrrl

MarianBull is the author of this article. The gray box you are referencing is not a post from her but the 'About the author' section of the article that appears at the end of every article on this site.

Stringio

over 1 year ago scotchgrrl

MarianBull is the author of this article. The gray box you are referring to is not a post from her but the 'About the author' section that appears at the end of every article on this site.

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over 1 year ago henandchicks

This recipe is so similar to mine; I love it, and the consistant results. This may be nit-picky, but it is not the yeast byproduct alcohol that makes the bread taste sour (or else all bread would taste sour!), but it is lactic acid, which comes from the lactobacilli.

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Marian is Food52's Associate Editor.

Thanks for catching that!

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over 1 year ago Michael Jubinsky

Actually, the sourdough culture develops both lactic and acetic organic acids depending on how you feed and maintain the culture. Warm ad loose (100% hydration) tends toward the lactic while firmer and cooler tend toward the acetic. The refrigerator storage for long periods or for quick feeding then repeatedly back in the refrigerator will make even a 100% hydration culture move to the dark side (acetic).
By the way, the article was very good and clearly written and I will share it with our baking students.

Michael Jubinksy - Stone Turtle Baking and Cooking School, Lyman, Maine

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over 1 year ago kristy49

I have a starter I made with organic raisins, water and wheat flour for 10 days on the counter, then added more water and regular bread flour until a sponge formed. I keep it in the fridge within a crock type jar with a strong latch seal.
When I take it out I get it to room temp, add more flour and water, then wait a couple hours and take half for my recipe, putting the rest away after 24 hours uncovered on the counter.

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Marian is Food52's Associate Editor.

Cool! I've heard of people making starters from canned pineapple rings, but never raisins.

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over 1 year ago abbyarnold

My starter is a combo of something I bought years ago from King Arthur's catalog, an ancient family starter from my friend Melissa, and the wild yeast in the air around our neighborhood which until recently was the site of a huge and wonderful sourdough bread bakery. I keep it in the fridge and have been known to neglect it for up to a year. I keep a bit in the freezer as insurance. It is usually in an old plastic container that once held salsa or fresh mozzarella--no fancy container. It takes 3 to 5 days to wake it up after a long haul in the fridge, and I use water and flour only to feed it--no dairy products. It makes great bread and waffles. I sometimes use the "no-knead" methodology and it still works great. When my kids were little I sold little pots of starter along with recipes and instructions at the PTA fundraisers, and have taught sourdough workshops at Unitarian Universalist Teen Camp in our district.

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over 1 year ago KThomas

I use the natural yeast that is in the air. Our family's start is about 40 years old now. I take it out of the fridge about 3 to 5 days before I expect to use it. I only use milk in mine so I add 1 cup of whole milk or buttermilk along with one cup of flour to freshen it up. I then let it sit on the counter until I use it. Then I put it directly back in the fridge without freshening it until the next time. I only freshen it before I use it so it is very low maintenance. Sometimes it sits in the fridge in it's crock for more than month without use. If the crock starts to get a little rough looking ie sourdough start buildup on the sides I occasionally clean it. I do that by taking any start out and placing it in a bowl. I then gently clean the crock with cool water by hand, no soap please and never in the dishwasher. Once cleaned up I add the start back in. The cracks in the crock's glaze retain some of the natural yeast spores and help it start right back up again. IN the summer I occasional let it sit outside under a dishtowel to collect more yeast. Makes the best pancakes and waffles.

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over 1 year ago chasey

Just in case you're a gluten free goddess who loves sour dough... Just found this:
http://www.artofglutenfreebaking...

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over 1 year ago chasey

Question... Is there such a thing as gluten free sour dough starter? Love this pet!

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over 1 year ago Carolyn Cobb

My mother made sourdough using wild yeast. My son said what ever was in the bread it never molded, when she sent him bread in college. I am now taking my starter to every place she made bread to collect the yeast in that area. I am now making bread with gluten free grains and flours. You start with purple cabbage leaves and apple peels. There is something on the cabbage leaves that takes the place of gluten. I have my mother's crock that I keep covered with a homespun cloth. Baking fun to all.

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over 1 year ago chasey

Will you pretty please report back?? I would so love to learn how to do this!

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over 1 year ago Carolyn Cobb

There is a cook book called the Gluten Free Vegan Bread book (I think that is the whole title. I have the book but it is not with me now. I will try and post later with the correct title. The book is full of all sorts of bread recipes. Loaves,pita, flat breads, and others. The sour dough starter recipes is in this book.